Thursday, April 30, 2009

29 Risky but Successful

Another successful day thanks to a dedicated and welcoming principal of this public school, Santa Rosa. Having met at an earlier occasion further explanation of our intentions with the visit was not necessary as he invited us to sit down in his office. In Michael's words (just having blogged about the event at blogs.ncl.ac.uk/m.j.burgess1 30/04/09 Poblado 2):

"As luck would have it, our host and director of studies was Victor who we met at the Community Violence debate a few weeks previously. It was Victor who so candidly contextualised dry politics in terms of the daily tragedies on the Aguablanca streets. Fortunately, he is by no means all talk and received us efficiently and courteously despite the stress of the meeting. We quickly briefed him on the scope of our research ... before he disappeared to greet his audience. Joni, Geraldo and myself had been chatting for about 20 mins when we suddenly became aware that Victor was introducing us to the crowd and what a crowd it had become.

As we stepped beyond the office threshold it became apparent that over 200 parents had come to the meeting, obliged as they are to attend. Victor invited me to speak and whilst I feel my Spanish has improved I'm no Miguel Cervantes, so I put in a sidestep and threw a languid hospital pass to my partner. Fortunately, Joni is a true trooper, not to mention an outrageous linguistic (5 languages at the last count) carrying it off with great aplomb and receiving a big round of applause for this troubles. We asked the parents to spare a little time after their teachers meeting to complete the questionnaires and it just remained for us to organise an appropriate situ. At this moment, we all paused to consider the full breadth of opportunity. With Luz Haydee (another public school) just around the corner, we could drop off the teacher and director of study questionnaires and complete that set having already carried out the parents' session. Whilst I remained at Santa Rosa (this public school) to greet the parents post-teacher meeting, it was agreed that Joni and Gerardo would head off to Luz Haydee with the requisite documents and return asap. It so happened that minutes after their departure, numerous parents and their children were already departing requiring it seems little teacher reassurance. In the absence of any official recognition I grabbed a table and a few available chaires, offering them to a number of willing interviewees and quite a few unwilling ones."

At the other public school, Luz Haydee, I (Joni) was invited by the coordinater Hector to introduce our work again for the 12 teachers present. These were also the once we chose to hand out the questionnaires to. Hector being specially interested in our work, after having helped us with the parents' questionnaires the week before, asked me present myself further and the reasons for our choice of Colombia etc.

I gave them the summary, from my time as a teacher in the wealthier side of Cali in 2003-2004, having heard a lot about Aguablanca without having taken the opportunity to visit it, to my interest in coming back for my own thesis field work a couple of years later (in 2007), being interested in education and seeing great opportunities for a great learning experience in Aguablanca to finally my presentation in England where I gained Michael's and reconfirmed his teacher Pauline's confidence in assisting with his field research. To my great surprise I received another round of applause this day. Gerardo distributed the questionnaires and before leaving one of the teachers approached to ask me more. He told me he was impressed to find someone from a country so good, developed and safe as mine here in this most complicated part of the country. He said they would need a thousand of my kind. Reflecting on this, I'm sure I could start a chain of people coming here to find at least two reasons to stay: 1) the possibility to enjoy the richness of one of the earth's paradise-like countries 2) satisfactory work that makes sense and fulfills a human need to do something genuinely appreciated.

Getting back to Santa Rosa where we left Michael it was already getting dark. Gerardo had commented on the complicated issue of getting out from the school as he had noted some gang people watching the neighbourhood. I knew it was time to wrap up.

Michael writes: "Forty minutes into the process and things were turning a little chaotic, whilst I had 5 or 6 parents safety seated I had found myself tied to a semi-literate woman who obviously needed plenty of assistance. However, whilst I was so occupied I wasn't able to give the essential prompt to other parents who were drifting closer to exit. Just as I was preparing to cut the ambilical, Joni and Gerardo came to the rescue once again. In total we snared 29 parents and could have had many more had I not run out of questionnaires. One notable individual was a tiny, displaced indigenous woman with the worries of the world on her shoulders. She was so intent on understanding the scope of our work in Aguablanca and how it might help her community. It's clear that displacement as well as violence are significant inter-related factors that affect society and consequently education in this area."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

28 More Reencounters

Just passed this intersection today and I remembered having posed with a cow last time I walked here. This time, however, no cow.

Funnier though was to see the dog on the other picture below again. A small, old dog without teeth that Gerardo scared Patrik with a year and a half ago. Hopefully I can get a picture of him next week when we're returning to the private school, Santa Rosa, where he spends his days in mummy's office.

Another flashback appeared at the visit of this public school, where I jumped jump rope with the kids last time according to the other picture to the left. On the visit today there were barely no kids in the school since there was a parents'-teachers' meeting this day that we had come to to distribute Michael's question-naires. As opposed to in other schools, where I usually get to make a short speach before the 200 or so parents before distributing the questionnaires, in this school a very helpful teacher helped us with distributing the questionnaires as if it were a mandatory part of the meeting.

We got to the school at 8 o'clock and finished around 9:40. Some children that were present were especially curious about our visit and asked us many questions about our countries, if they were "cool", and if we were coming back after finishing our work, what their names were in English.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

27 Beautiful Re-encounter

A year and a half ago, on the stairs in the private school Voluntad de Dios in the middle of one of the absolute poorest areas in Aguablanca, I saw this cute little girl who was waiting for her mother to come and pick her up. She had waited roughly an hour by the time Patrik and I arrived with Gerardo to visit the school. After my almost 1 hour meeting with the principal, Rigoberto, I got out to meet this cute girl and hear the story from Patrik and Gerardo. She had not been able to pay the 100-pesos-lunch that the school provided and was sitting hungry waiting for her mother. Adding to this sad story, with a funny twist, is that she had asked Gerardo if Patrik was ill or something since he spoke so strangely. She never understood we were foreigners and did not have Spanish as our first and only language.

The above image has traveled around with me to numerous presentations as my favourite picture to show from our field work in 2007. (Thanks Patrik for having taken the picture!) Now I have a new favourite picture.

Only yesterday did I find out that the girl's name is Vanesa. She's now 7 years old, with her birthday someday this very month. I was lucky enough to recognise her suddenly on the visit to the school yesterday, when together with Gerardo we wanted Michael to get to know La Florida, the poor invasion I hope to show more pictures from. She was playing in the stairs with her friends before she got down and passed me.

I caught her attention with an "hola señorita" noting that she didn't recognise me at first, which was of course to expect. I probably only remembered her so well because of the situation with the picture and the fact that I've seen the picture in my Aguablanca tribute video so many times. I continued saying that I have a picture of her and me together, and in just a moment she remembered me. I asked if she remembered that we had taken the picture over there in the stairs and if she remembered my tall friend who spoke strangely. With a timid smile she nodded her head saying softly: "my mother wanted to see the picture". I didn't hear her at first but she repeated that her mother had wanted to see the picture we had taken a year and a half ago. Obviously she had told her mother about us that day. I told her I still had the picture and that I would bring a copy of it to her. "When?" she asked. Thinking fast and realizing that we would actually come back the very next day to pick up some questionnaires that Michael was to leave I said that we'd come back tomorrow. I asked what her name was. "Vanesa" she said. I introduced myself as Joni. She was satisfied and suddenly said she had to go to her class that had just started.

While waiting for Michael to finish his meeting with Rigoberto, joining them back and forth, I could see Vanesa smiling and waving from her class room as I waved to her. The re-encounter really made my day. She had been smiling already when I saw her playing in the stairs. A much more happy image than the one of our first encounter. Only that was pleasing enough to see. Something to tell Patrik. Now, I was looking forward to print the picture for her for the next day.

This is my new favourite picture from my time in Aguablanca. Taken about 8 hours ago. I can't but feel happy about this great opportunity to reconnect with the people who helped realizing my own field work by now helping Michael with his. It's of course part of the purpose of my thesis work to present our findings and start realizing projects accordingly, so to actually find myself useful in the field again really feels amazing. Thanks to my fiancée I thought of bringing a bunch of different sweets together with the picture to Vanesa. I saw her happily enjoy them right after our re-encounter. A very special encounter for me making me determined to follow and help Vanesa's and her likes' progress towards a good future. With a friend like Michael, if he returns after finishing his Master's, I'm sure we can achieve something, hopefully together with our friends and connections in Europe.

(A link to Michael's blog might be in order: blogs.ncl.ac.uk/m.j.burgess1.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

26 New Shortcuts back to the Field

A year and a half ago, we got into the network of contacts, including vital permission and authority from the 3 local heads of municipal department of education in Aguablanca, thanks to the following chain of contacts: Principal of the school I worked with for a year -> Principal of the school's educational branch in Aguablanca -> Heads of municipal department of education in Aguablanca.

The phone number I was given a year and a half ago that we now needed didn't work. However, it was still enough to pick up the phone yesterday and call another friend who could set up the wanted meeting already for today. A very quick and friendly meeting with almost as much friendly conversation about personal matters as the strategy for Michael's work. We were fortunate enough to hear that already this Friday the head of education will hold a meeting with the principals in the area where we'll get enough space and time to motivate Michael's presence. A brief discussion concluded that this area will more than suffice for Michael's work, as it is more in-deapth than broad-scaled.

The field study of 2007 was also much facilitated by similar meetings held by the heads of education for the principals of all the schools in the area. Patrik and I could thereby properly present ourselves and our intention to visit all the schools and the purpose for doing so. To make more efficient the investigation we handed out the questionnaires for the principals to have finished filling in for us at the time of our visit. Many principals started filling them out already during the meetings and we could collect several finished ones already by the end of the meeting. I'm sure this was one of the key factors helping us achieve the amount of visits as we did.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

25 Important Arrival - Important Presentation

Crossing the Atlantic twice within 3 weeks might be something you'd do either for business or for pleasure. Embarrassingly enough I had to do it for studies, having had a left-behind exam spooking since the autumn of 2002 that I finally had to deal with, gratefully enough cashing out two Master's Degrees as a result.

Now, back in Cali since 2 weeks, things are seeming to turn around quite well. Michael has arrived, Dr. Pauline Dixon's student who seems very keen on playing a role in the research and improvement of Colombian education. His thesis is about education climate in private and public schools, and most likely from next week he'll start visiting Aguablanca and some of the schools that my thesis surveyed. I'm most happy to have been able to receive him here and having spent almost a week and a half already as his host I've been able to confirm my first very positive impressions of his interest and dedication that he showed in Newcastle, where my thesis partner Patrik and I were invited by Pauline to present some of our thesis results. That was on October 6, 2008, so merely 6 months later our work in Aguablanca continues. Still, only academically, but thanks to this, soon also practically I hope.

Last Friday, April 3, I had a presentation of my Master's thesis in the Autónoma University in front of a group of around 12 local researchers + Michael and my good neighbour Rodrigo. It went quite well, considering my first attempt in giving a semi-structured, semi-formal, slightly Colombian-improvisation-style-kind-of presentation in Spanish. The topic Private Schools in the Slums (showing better results than the public ones) in itself being highly controversial, the interest from the researcher audience was very high with some tough questions but easy crowd understanding the picture completely after having explained a few of the thesis' important figures. As Michael said, it was a very significant moment, especially for us, to have had the topic exposed in this setting for the first time. Very significant that Michael got to be there to represent his work and continue the thoughts with Rodrigo and some of the key players at the University of inviting Pauline, James Tooley and also Michael's mentor Sugata Mitra to Colombia one day. Pauline seems very anxious to get things going here and we're feeling very enthusiastic about having her behind us. Can't wait to get news about her bidding process about realizing her next big project about talented children from the slums in Colombia. First things first though, and assisting Michael in finding his way trough his field study is on the top of my agenda for the weeks to come.

A first step is to introduce Michael to the principals of the schools he'll study. First meeting will be with one of the heads of education in Aguablanca to get authorization to realize his work.

Similarly, my field study required this authorization to easily get to visit all principals without problems. They were all happy to assist, showing great dedication to their work with the children. Of course, many were hoping to establish good connections someone linked to an international organization that might result in investment in the shools. Something clearly needed is investment in material inputs for the children, higher salaries to the dedicated private school teachers and in general more attention to the desperate and violent kids who make life so sad and difficult for the majority of hard working poor people.